I’m living with a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety at the moment. There are a million things happening in my life which are feeding these feelings. I’ll spare you the details because they’re not important, nor are they unique. That’s not the point here.
I know I’m not alone. Many people feel overwhelmed by life much of the time, and particularly right now. We have many stressors in common. We also are all experiencing common stressors, made worse by the overarching ones we have in common (I confess to having fun writing that).
After my second son was born, I was struggling. I had a very energetic 2.5-year-old who needed a lot of attention, a newborn, and was recovering from a C-section. I remember feeling overwhelmed just by the reality of my everyday existence. My then-sister-in-law called to see how I was doing, so I told her honestly. Her response was that I should be grateful for having two healthy children and a warm home because there were so many people who didn’t. I was taken aback and immediately felt ashamed for having complained. After I hung up though, I was irritated.
Here’s the thing. Literally everything in life is relative to your perspective.
In moments when we are struggling, if we stop and reflect, we can always think of someone who is worse off relative to our current situation. And for some people, maybe resetting their perspective about it is helpful. But that doesn’t work for me. Instead, it fills me with these yucky feelings of shame and martyrdom which insist that I deny my own pain of the moment.
What if, instead, we were to just meet one another where we are?
What if we were to just make space to listen to whatever it is the other person is going through and not make them feel bad for… feeling bad? What if we just reassured one another that it’s okay and valid to feel whatever we’re feeling, and focus on helping each other get through the toughest moments to be able to see what’s on the other side?
I’m sure my former SIL thought she was being helpful by pointing out that I had so much to be grateful for, in spite of my current frustration and pain. And she was right. But that wasn’t helpful to me in the moment. Nor is it helpful to me now when someone points out that we’re all suffering extreme stress so I’m no different. I’m not claiming to be an exception. But I am saying there are other ways to keep moving forward and get through it which don’t make me feel like an asshole for acknowledging the pain of the current moment. Here are a few ideas. Feel free to share them.
Hold space. Just listen to each other. Sometimes that’s all we need is to be heard and to be seen. It’s a validation in and of itself.
Ask what’s needed. I read a great piece of advice recently. When someone you care about is struggling (and this applies to your professional life and your personal one), ask what they need. Some people ask, “Are we problem-solving or are we listening?” Someone else said they ask, “Do you need comfort or solutions?” There’s no cookie-cutter solution that works every time. So ask.
Respond accordingly. Based on the answer to the previous question, provide that. Not the thing you think would be best, but what the other person asked for. Don’t impose.
Repeat. For me, there are layers. Once I’ve gotten things off my chest, I may start by wanting some comfort and validation that feeling my feelings is fine. Coming from too many circumstances over the years where my strong feelings are scary or offensive to others, this is a truly critical step. But then, I’m likely to want to figure out how I can take a step that will help me start to move through the stress or pain.
I don’t like to stay stuck; I just need to know that it’s okay to be stuck for a minute sometimes.
Bottom line? Let’s stop telling each other we should just be grateful for the lives we have. It’s a pithy sound bite that is self-righteous. Instead, let’s acknowledge that our great lives have crappy moments sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing the crappiness before figuring out how to keep putting one foot in front of the other.